I was wading through a sea of cowboy hats. There was a smell of wafting flavors of barbecue and fried corn dogs in the air. As I passed the giant bronze cattle statues, it seemed for a moment that I might have accidentally wandered into the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show, but this event wasn’t even in the same country. Texas rodeos don’t have poutine. I was at the Calgary Stampede. It’s billed as the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth and who am I to argue? It’s pretty amazing.
Alberta, Canada is the closest to a Texas doppelgänger that the Great White North offers. The province is famous for its cattle ranching and oil production. It’s rodeo is the largest on earth and not surprisingly there’s a lot of Texas cowboys that come to the stampede to win their share of Canuck bucks. The focus of the ten day event is the rodeo in the Grandstand section. Calf tie down roping, barrel racing, steer wrestling and six other daily events offer 2 million dollars in prize money. The top performers in the world come to win. I saw a Texan lasso a calf, jump off his horse and tie the bovine’s legs in 6.9 seconds. That’s about half a second longer than the world record.
I can’t tie my shoes that fast.
There’s several arenas scattered throughout the saddle dome with lots of different things to do. You’ll find live music of all genres at various venues like the Coca Cola stage, the North Nashville area and the newest building, The Big Four; all offer unique experiences. The Big Four was named after the founders of the event and serves beer and barbecue with various bands taking their turns on the stage. Canadians love their beer and there’s lots of local choices that don’t disappoint. You won’t see potato salad and barbecue sauce with your smoked meat though. Instead you’ll find horseradish cabbage salad and strips of bacon.Pulled pork, pulled chicken and miniature sausages served with semi-sweet rolls is the status quo. Poutine is the standard junk food choice of Canada. French fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. You either love it or hate it.
This year there was a trained dog show: Dogs catching frisbees, canines racing through obstacle courses and shaggy mutts dancing with their trainers. The arena was full of delighted dog lovers. Outside in the midway section, motorcycle daredevils wowed the enthusiastic crowd as they raced up ramps and somersaulted through the air. Dogs, motorcycles and junk food. What’s not to like?
One of the highlights of the stampede is the chuck wagon racing. It’s a controversial sport because both riders and horses have lost their lives in this high-octane race. The wagons first complete a circle 8 around the barrels and then must do a lap around the track. The wagons are usually accompanied by outriders and run 4 wagons per race. The entire affair takes about a minute, but it’s fast and furious and the most talked about part of the rodeo. The “half mile of hell” is vehemently opposed by animal activists, but has been a tradition for almost a hundred years. The first chuck wagons were those that served participants a pancake breakfast.
95 years later, volunteers still line the streets throughout Calgary offering free fapjacks for hungry wannabe cowboys. Who doesn’t love free pancakes?
The heart of the Stampede is about the animals that make it happen and there’s a chance to view and interact with many of the stars of the show, watch demonstrations and git your cowboy on. I saw a little girl milking a fake cow, some of the biggest horses I’ve ever seen and lots of beautifully polished hooves and horns on animals that looked too perfect for their owners to be put out to pasture. Miniature donkeys, a sheep exhibit, and even llamas rounded out what looked like the world’s largest petting zoo . There’s not many things in this world more adorable than a clean baby pig.
One of the largest sections of the rodeo is the midway. I’ve never seen so many people trying to win stuffed bears with games of chance. Attractions that might have one or two players at the Houston rodeo are literally swarmed with contestants all vying to win the coveted plush awards. In the concession area, there’s standard snacks like turkey legs and fried everything, but alcohol is served only in designated areas. You won’t see any Canadians walking the stampede with a beer in hand. It’s verboten. Some of the most popular choices for concessions in Alberta are miniature donuts, root beer, and soft serve ice cream. I couldn’t figure out why soft serve cones are such a big deal in Cowtown (Calgary’s nickname), but there’s all sorts of variations to the frozen treat that I’ve never seen before. I also witnessed the Canadian premiere of the latest addition to the international junk food scene (wait for it to pop up at the Houston rodeo next year). I’m talking about the pickle corn dog. Concessionaires wrap a hot dog in a a pickle and then fry it in corn batter….I’m pretty sure that covers most of the major food groups. Some are even serving pickle juice as a chaser.
Calgary has a short summer before it plunges into a freezing winter. The stampede takes place during the warmest part of the year and not only is it a world class event, but the entire province gets into the revelry. The streets are full of cowboy hats and people selling cowboy hats. The mood is infectious. It’s a chance for everyone to kick up their heels before the nights get longer and the snow starts to fall.
Is it better than the Houston Livestock Rodeo? That’s hard to say, but the crowd is certainly having a better time and you can’t really say you really know the rodeo until you’ve done both.
West Jet, Air Canada and United all offer direct flights to Calgary from Houston. Flights start as low as $250 R/T. Book your hotel or Airbnb in advance because the entire city sells out.